When you look at mountains, they typically don’t look back at you. But South Dakota was never typical.
The eyes of presidents and a Native American leader gaze out of giant mountains at the iconic Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. These two bucket-list attractions alone are enough to draw a crowd.
But South Dakota’s unexpected treasures continue from there. Groups can enter classic fairy tales in Aberdeen and a corn palace in Mitchell. They can walk up to life-size presidents in Rapid City and gaze up at giant art sculptures in Sioux Falls.
And in between the picture-worthy attractions, groups can enjoy the small-town charm and welcoming spirit found throughout the Mount Rushmore State.
The roaring of a three-tiered waterfall greets guests to Sioux Falls, the most populous city in the state. The sprawling cascades gave the city its name and are the focal point of the 123-acre Falls Park.
“We are the gateway to the rest of the state of South Dakota,” said Jackie Wentworth, sales manager for Experience Sioux Falls. “We serve as the urban center of our state, but we have not lost our rural roots. We bring our rural connections to the visitor experience along with the arts, culture and entertainment.”
Groups can experience some of Sioux Falls’ agricultural heritage at the Stockyards Ag Experience in Falls Park. The interactive museum explains the impact of agriculture in the region with historical images, high-tech interactive displays and oral interviews.
Visitors can find Sioux Falls memorabilia at the Falls Park Visitor Information Center. The center is adjacent to a five-story tower that offers panoramic views of the park and city.
Downtown, guests can peruse the yearly SculptureWalk exhibit of more than 55 sculptures. Brochures help groups locate each sculpture and learn more about the artists who created them. Visitors can then participate in the voting for the People’s Choice Award winner, which will remain in the city’s permanent collection.
The cornerstone artwork for the city is the Arc of Dreams. The stainless steel arc spans the width of a football field over the Big Sioux River; a 15-foot gap above the river represents the leap of faith that dreamers take.
Groups can also plan stops at the Washington Pavilion for performing and visual arts opportunities, the Old Courthouse Museum for historic exhibits on the area, and the Pettigrew Home and Museum for a tour of a beautifully restored 1889 Queen Anne home.
The people of Aberdeen embrace their whimsical side at the town’s trademark attraction: Storybook Land. Kids and adults alike enjoy marveling at the life-size characters and interactive scenes that bring nursery rhymes and other childhood stories to life.
Groups enjoy taking photos with Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, and characters from childhood stories. L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” lived in Aberdeen, so Storybook Land features the Land of Oz, an area that follows Dorothy’s path from Kansas to the Yellow Brick Road until it reaches the wizard’s balloon.
Aberdeen’s Visitor Center lies at the entrance of Storybook Land for information on the town’s attractions.
“We are either a big town or a small city,” said Katherine Grandstrand, event planning and marketing coordinator for the Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are a lot of new people moving here. They come for our two colleges, and then they stay. You definitely feel our small-town vibes when you go into the local coffee shops and everybody knows everybody.”
Wylie Park is one of the region’s most popular parks, with 200 acres of well-kept grounds, a stunning lake and miles of trails. Groups can rent paddleboats or canoes to explore Lake Minne-eho or zoom on a go-kart at Thunder Road. The park also contains Wylie Zoo, which offers up-close glimpses of buffalo, elk, prairie dogs and sika deer.
“You can rent a surrey, which is kind of like the cars they drove in ‘The Flintstones,’ but instead, you pedal,” said Grandstrand. “It is a really cool way to see the park.”
Aberdeen also offers seasonal community theater and access to nearby state parks, such as the Richmond Lake State Recreation Area, the Mina Lake State Recreation Area and Fort Sisseton Historic State Park.
An ingredient in many modern products as well as a tasty side dish, corn is one of the most versatile vegetables. In Mitchell, it’s also a work of art.
Mitchell’s Corn Palace is a Moorish Revival building decorated with murals and designs constructed from corn and other grains. Dakota Wesleyan University students create a new design each year using approximately 1.5 million nails and 325,000 ears of corn.
Town residents built Mitchell’s first corn palace in 1892. The current Corn Palace dates to 1921, making the structure 100 years old this year. The Corn Palace hosts summer concerts and other events. Groups can see the murals, wander through the indoor art gallery and shop for souvenirs at the gift shop.
“Mitchell is one of the largest cities between Sioux Falls and Rapid City,” said Jen Johnston, director of tourism and marketing for the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce. “We are a roadside destination town. Visitors could spend a day or overnight here on their travels out west. We are known for the Corn Palace, our corny puns and our welcoming atmosphere.”
Groups can also step back 1,000 years in history at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. The National Historic Landmark is the only active archeological site in South Dakota that is open to the public. The Village’s Boehnen Memorial Museum and Thomsen Center Archeodome give insight into the ancient people who lived here.
Tours reveal a reconstructed lodge, innovative hunting tools and the agricultural techniques used by these resourceful people.
The site overlooks Lake Mitchell, a man-made reservoir used for outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking, golf and boating. Nearby, the Dakota Discovery Museum features artifacts and exhibits on Mitchell’s early pioneers.
When Rapid City started, it served as a great place for tourists to unpack their bags before exploring the Black Hills’ many monuments and parks. However, in the past 10 years, Rapid City itself has grown into a destination.
“We used to not think of ourselves as a destination,” said Julie Schmitz Jensen, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City. “Now we have so many things to see and do. Our Main Street Square is like Rapid City’s living room. There are shops right next to it. The whole downtown has an incredible vibe with wineries, breweries, gift shops and art galleries. There is a lot to do here. The list goes on and on.”
Rapid City has attracted national attention for its life-size bronze statues of each of the nation’s past presidents. Called the City of Presidents, the downtown attraction allows participants to visit one president after another using a guidebook. The presidents are easy to see, with one on every corner.
Another favorite awaits at the Prairie Edge Trading Company and Galleries, which offers an extensive collection of Plains Indian art, jewelry, sculptures, books, music and crafts. A fine-art gallery of museum quality showcases traditional and contemporary Native American art. Other traditional crafts like headdresses, drums, pipes and robes illustrate ceremonial life for Native peoples.
To discover the recent and ancient history of the Black Hills region, groups can stop at the Journey Museum and Learning Center. The seven-acre museum takes guests through geologic history with exhibits on paleontology, archaeology, Native American habitats and early pioneers.
The museum features interactive elements, such as a model of a Tyrannosaurus rex that roars, a holographic Native American and storyboards with famous locals like General Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse.
Black Hills and Badlands
What started as a seemingly impossible idea became a world-famous attraction at Mount Rushmore National Monument. The gigantic mountain structure honoring four U.S. presidents draws approximately 3 million tourists a year to gaze up at the iconic faces perched 5,725 feet above sea level.
One of the most popular stops in the Black Hills and Badlands region, the national monument also has a visitor center, the Sculptor’s Studio, the Carvers Café and the Memorial Ice Cream Shop. In the evenings, the mountain faces light up for a patriotic and inspirational light show.
However, the appeal of the Black Hills region goes far beyond Mount Rushmore.
“We have often been described as a bucket-list destination,” said Michelle Thomson, president and CEO of the Black Hills and Badlands Tourism Association. “You won’t find anything like this place anywhere else. We have six major parks within our region. There is a huge variety of things to see and do here, from chuck-wagon dinners to Native American cultural experiences. The memories people make here stay with them forever.”
The 71,000-acre Custer State Park is a group favorite for its sprawling landscapes of bison herds grazing on mixed-grass prairies. The Badlands National Park is another must-see for 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires.
The Crazy Horse Memorial also draws crowds for its massive scale. Though still in progress, the mountain statue of the Lakota Warrior is already an impressive feat. Groups can glimpse a rarely seen view of the memorial by taking a bus to the base of the mountain to look straight up.
The area’s Wild West history lives on at Deadwood, where guests can choose from nearly 80 gaming establishments, 41 restaurants and live shows like the re-created shootouts on the town’s Main Street.